With just days to go before the 15 September parliamentary elections in Macedonia, the campaign is in a deepening crisis as the ruling nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party moves against its political opponents with roadblocks, shootings, secret indictments, and libel suits.
Tetovo, Macedonia; 12 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Ten gunmen attacked a village police station near Tetovo today, killing an ethnic Albanian police officer in the latest violent incident as the campaign for Macedonia's elections on 15 September draw to a close.
These elections are to choose a new parliament, leading to the appointment of a government that many hope will be less trigger-happy and less corrupt than its predecessor.
This campaign's election violence has riled at least two of Macedonia's neighbors. Albania and Bulgaria have officially rebuked Macedonia in recent days for the tone of the campaign.
The ruling Macedonian nationalist party VMRO-DPMNE of Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, repeatedly rent by splits, is fighting challenges from its former leading members, who now have their own parties, as well as from its more traditional rival and front-runner in the polls, the Social Democrats (SDSM).
The nationalists' tactics are quintessentially Macedonian: roadblocks, stone throwing, and even shooting, as on 8 September, when several hundred men, allegedly members of the elite Lions paramilitary group, used gunfire to try to prevent opposition parties from holding rallies in Prilep and Bitola.
A leading member of the ruling party, Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski, said his party is not at fault and threatened some journalists who report otherwise. Boskovski also threatened to file criminal charges against media executives who permit "discrediting the reputation of the current authorities ahead of elections."
Some ethnic Albanian politicians, however, appear relatively untroubled by the violence, characterizing it as temporary and limited. Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSh) Chairman Arben Xhaferi spoke with RFE/RL in Tetovo. "I am talking about a postwar syndrome and I am not ready to predict that in the near future we will have an idyllic situation in society. Macedonia must recreate a new cohesion, a new dimension. And there is a difficulty in several levels, in the political level, in the mentality of the people and in other dimensions. I suspect that we will have a very easy autumn and easy next year. We will have difficulties, but we must go on," Xhaferi said.
Fazli Veliu, the eminence grise of the disbanded National Liberation Army (UCK) and leading member of the front-running ethnic Albanian Democratic Alliance for Integration (BDI), holds a similar view. "But there are some cases that indicate some attempts at destabilization, not emanating from where the elections are to be held, but from the centers in Skopje and elsewhere, in order to destabilize or prevent the elections," Veliu said.
Most of the violence -- mainly bombings of party offices and shootings of security personnel -- has been in the capital Skopje and in the nearby Albanian-majority town of Tetovo, the scene of heavy fighting last year between Albanian insurgents and Macedonian security forces.
Tetovo is home to BDI and PDSh. Both parties have threatened to boycott the elections if the situation gets out of control. PDSh Chairman Xhaferi said: "We mentioned the possibility of boycotting the elections because some political parties or some fragments of Macedonian society and institutions have threatened one Albanian political party (BDI) with the arrest of [former UCK commander and BDI head] Ali Ahmeti and to create a lot of difficulties for us. We sent a clear message that we do not accept this kind of state violation of democracy. We have the law on amnesty [for fighters involved in last year's insurgency]. The law for amnesty is valid for everybody and the stability of Macedonia is dependant on that."
But some observers question whether a boycott might in fact be a way to save face before a possible electoral defeat. Xhaferi told RFE/RL he intends to resign if his party fares badly.
Tetovo is enveloped in red Albanian flags and BDI banners that read, "Yesterday UCK, Today BDI" and "BDI -- the Victors Are With You!" PDSh's slogan, draped across Tetovo's main thoroughfares, reads, "PDSh -- Synonymous with the West." Some might argue that PDSh, with its alleged ties to organized crime, particularly in connection with the party's deputy chairman, Menduh Thaci, may also be synonymous with corruption.
Asked by RFE/RL to respond to such perceptions, Xhaferi, referring to corrupt politicians in his midst, said only, "I see them as people without any kind of political culture."
PDSh is currently the junior partner in the Macedonian government and some of its leaders, such as Thaci, are reputed to have close business ties with Boskovski and other VMRO-DPMNE leaders. Until the formation of BDI earlier this year, PDSh was the strongest Albanian party in Macedonia.
Xhaferi described PDSh's party platform by saying it is based on three pillars. "The first is the Albanian national orientation, the tendency to equalize the position of Albanians in society. The second is the Western orientation of our policy, the tendency to include Macedonia in Western institutions, in the European Union, the North Atlantic alliance, and so on. Third is the economy. We must change our economic dimension in Macedonia to emphasize the role of Albanians in this field," Xhaferi said.
In contrast, BDI is hoping to ride to an election win on the coattails of the UCK's victory on the battlefield and is hoping to form a coalition with the front-running Social Democrats.
BDI's Veliu said his new party is particularly interested in two cabinet posts, economy and education. "Personally, I'd be interested in the post of minister of education, especially for higher education. For our party, the main interest is the Ministry of the Economy, because from the economy we can have development, prosperity, and stabilization of the country. These are also our goals and we intend to realize them," Veliu said.
But it is far from clear whether the winner will agree to a BDI presence in the government. The ruling VMRO-DPMNE is highly unlikely to agree to such an arrangement, but its chances of victory are considerably less than the opposition Social Democrats, who might be willing to form an alliance with BDI but without a government role from Ahmeti, Veliu, or Gezim Ostreni. All three remain on the U.S. administration's list of persons suspected of terrorist activities.
VMRO-DPMNE has called on the Social Democrats to foreswear forming a coalition with what it calls the "terrorists" that make up BDI's membership.
Another striking aspect of this year's parliamentary election campaign in Macedonia is the role of Interior Minister Boskovski. In the last six months, one scandal after another has not so much hit Boskovski as been unleashed by him and his ministry.
These include the mysterious slaying by police in March of seven Pakistani refugees whom officials accused of being Al-Qaeda terrorists in the pay of UCK. In public, Boskovski would only say they were foreigners who had shot first. "This group was eliminated. That means the seven were killed. In all likelihood, they were foreigners. The autopsies will show this," Boskovski said.
There was also the accidental shooting by Boskovski of two policemen, a reporter, and a French embassy translator at Mavrovo Lake last spring, when the interior minister fired an automatic grenade launcher during a demonstration of the ministry's special forces. Rather than apologizing to the injured victims, Boskovski blamed them for standing too close while he was firing a machine gun. His refusal to accept responsibility for his actions, in the words of one Western diplomat, "turned the tide" of Macedonian public opinion against Boskovski and resulted in a boycott of his activities by some Macedonian journalists.
Boskovski has traveled to Albania and Australia in search of ethnic Macedonians to sign up to vote in the elections. In Albania's Liqenas district near Little Prespa Lake he registered some 3,500 ethnic Macedonians, giving them citizenship papers and registering them all as residing at the address of the Macedonian Interior Ministry. The Justice Minister has ruled the registrations invalid.
Late last month, two Macedonian reservists were killed, allegedly by Albanian separatist members of a group known as the Albanian National Army (AKSh). Several days later, ethnic Albanian kidnappers, also allegedly from AKSh, seized passengers on a bus in western Macedonia. They initially released three of the hostages, one of them an Albanian, and kept five, all Macedonians. After 1 1/2 days, the rest of the hostages were released.
Curiously, the deputy interior minister, Refat Elmazi, an ethnic Albanian, was in regular cell-phone contact with the hostage takers and he was the one who informed representatives from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe at 3 a.m. where they could find the freed hostages. Western diplomats have expressed skepticism over the existence of AKSh and over the kidnappings, suspecting they were a put-up job by the two ruling parties to sow fear and uncertainty among voters, thereby reducing voter turnout and improving the chances of the ruling parties of defeating the opposition.
BDI leader Veliu finds the kidnapping case dubious and suspects VMRO-DPMNE and PDSh of being behind this and other violence during the campaign. "I think it was prepared in advance. The roots of this [affair] go very deep. We can't say right off what's behind it but we believe that the ones who can regulate, stabilize, or destabilize the situation [are the ruling parties] VMRO and PDSh," Veliu said.
However, PDSh's Xhaferi, defending his party from being in league with VMRO-DPMNE's alleged attempts at destabilization, suggests the allegations are baseless. "Welcome to the dimension of paranoia and [conspiracy]. When some Macedonians say that behind the destabilization of Macedonia there is some kind of plot, some kind of conspiracy, we criticize this kind of thinking. But on the other hand, there is a lot of thinking in the same dimension. This is the typical theory of conspiracy. Somebody is creating this kind of situation to emphasize their role in society. But I think this is typical readiness for paranoia, nothing more and nothing else," Xhaferi said.
Interior Minister Boskovski has also prepared indictments against Veliu, Ahmeti, and Ostreni. The indictments remained secret for two months before being made public by the opposition and appear above all to be both a campaign promise to arrest the former UCK commanders if the incumbent nationalists win re-election and as a warning to the opposition Social Democrats not to form a coalition with BDI should they win.
Boskovski's ministry has launched charges against several Macedonian opposition figures, including Social Democratic Deputy Chairman and former Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski and former public prosecutor Stevan Pavleski, for misuse of public office, and journalists Marjan Djurovski and Saso Ordanoski for libel.
Western diplomats, while aware of Boskovski's connections to these affairs as well as to alleged corrupt activities, nevertheless insist that they have insufficient evidence to issue an indictment. In the words of one diplomat in Skopje, "We haven't come up with a smoking gun yet on Ljube Boskovski to put him on trial at the ICTY, [the United Nations war crimes tribunal at The Hague]."